Memory Piece by Lisa Ko: ‘Even if we went months or years without speaking, we were still connected’

Cover image for Memory Piece by Lisa KoI didn’t read Lisa Ko’s debut, The Leavers, but I do remember it being very well received. It was that and its structure that made me plump for her new novel, Memory Piece, which follows three Asian American women who first meet in 1983, aged twelve, and maintain a connection into their seventies when the world is a very different place.

She sketched her friends, kept lists of shows she saw, people she fooled around with, movies watched. If you did not maintain the days, what proof would you have of your existence, time passing?

Giselle and Jackie already know each other from their Saturdays at Chinese school when Ellen joins them making prank calls at a July 4th barbecue, the adults’ attention elsewhere. Ellen is from New York bringing a faint aura of sophistication to New Jersey. Giselle is already determined to become an artist, recording her life in her notebooks, finding a way to hide in her art. Jackie is from a wealthier family, the only child of a father who passes his computer skills on to her giving her something to bury herself in. Giselle and Jackie’s friendship blossoms, Jackie facilitating Giselle’s first major performance piece which entails a year spent living in a hidden room in their local shopping mall, recorded in weekly photographs. Jackie becomes part of the tech boom, developing an application that will see her taken up by a company whose growing power she knows won’t bode well for the future. Often on the periphery of their friendship, Ellen’s political activism proves prescient as New York descends into dystopia, divided between the uber rich and the very poor, her beloved squat in the frame for development. In old age, these three come together to create something that will outlast them all.

Online was an underground club; there was a relief in not having to be yourself. Online, you didn’t have a gender or race or body. 

Each of the friends has a lengthy section following the very different directions their lives take. Giselle’s thread follows her career as an artist from her early work through to her reemergence as a reluctant cult figure years after her Disappearance Piece which neatly gave the finger to the art world. Jackie guides us through the development of the internet and its eager, rapacious exploitation by big tech companies, developing her own application for people to record their lives in the way Giselle did with her notebooks. Ellen is the inveterate protestor on the fringes of their lives, faced with a bleak dystopia which feels not too far around the corner given the current state of populism. Tough to keep these three narratives from diverging too far – there was a point in Ellen’s when I wondered if Ko might be losing her way but she brings her characters satisfyingly back together with their final project.

Both Laura and Liz have also reviewed Memory Piece.

Dialogue Books: London 9780349704319 304 pages Hardback (read Via NetGalley)

23 thoughts on “Memory Piece by Lisa Ko: ‘Even if we went months or years without speaking, we were still connected’”

  1. I loved this, thank you for linking to my review. I was worried about the future parts but as they were all too believable, it felt like they really worked. I was very invested in this novel and couldn’t put it down!

  2. This sounds very satisfying. I enjoyed the variety of voices in The Leavers too. She seems to strike a good balance between telling/showing readers and inviting readers to fill-in-the-blanks for ourselves sometimes.

  3. I know Liz was very enthusiastic about this book. I wasn’t sure if I would like it or not, but I think perhaps I might, you both certainly make it sound excellent. I particularly like the idea of that friendship between the women lasting so long.

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